02/18/2023, 10.10
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Russian Orthodoxy and Militant Religion.

by Stefano Caprio

The ecclesiastical dimension appears increasingly secondary in the exaltation of the "Russian World," pointing to the people and the empire more than liturgies and bishop's miters. Everywhere imprinted on flags, T-shirts and digital memes is the slogan "We are Russians, God is with us!" Tsar Nicholas I's battle cry in the mid-19th century Crimean War.

It is now one week since the seventh anniversary of the historic meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill at the Havana airport on Feb. 12, 2016, but neither Church has seen fit to commemorate it on any occasion.

Until 2021, conferences had been held for the circumstance in alternating venues between Europe and Russia, the last one online on the pandemic, today the meetings are rare and unlikely, with the mute presence of Metropolitan Antonij of Volokolamsk in some common appointment, without any real dialogue being resumed even on the possibilities of acting together for peace.

Precisely with the prospect of finally starting negotiations for the cessation of the war in Ukraine, the pope himself has now put aside any possible convergence with the patriarch, focusing decisively on political summits.

Returning from his Feb. 5 trip to Africa, Francis reiterated that he was "open" to meeting with the presidents of both countries at the center of the conflict, Zelensky and Putin. "If I did not go to Kiev it is because it is not possible for the moment to go to Moscow, but I ask for dialogue," the pontiff wanted to clarify.

According to Russia's Leonid Sevastjanov, the pope reportedly wrote to him that he "would very much like to come to Moscow and discuss with President Putin the possibilities of settling the opposition between Russia and the West," as he told Ria Novosti on Feb. 15.

Sevastjanov is the president of the Union of Old Believers, a schismatic formation of Russian Orthodoxy that has always professed the superiority of the faith and traditions of Russians over all others, including those of other Orthodox Churches.

He is actually also a historical collaborator of Patriarch Kirill, who accepted him as a seminarian when he was metropolitan in Smolensk, despite coming from a schismatic family, and even sent him to study at the Gregorian University in Rome, where he received a licentiate in political philosophy in 2002.

He then completed his education at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, with a doctorate on international relations. His close relationship with Pope Francis is based on the pontiff's admiration for his wife Svetlana Kasyan, an opera singer and popular singer, who has visited the pope in Rome several times with her entire family.

Thus, these are not affable courtesy letters: the correspondence with the pope is a form of "parallel diplomacy" by an expert in international politics (Sevastjanov is also a consultant to the World Bank), a trusted man of the patriarch and President Putin himself, who has repeatedly expressed his closeness to the Old-Believer community.

The seventeenth-century schismatics, persecuted by all for centuries, today somehow express the deep soul of Russian Christianity, at least in the radical and militant version that is increasingly prevailing over the canonical and "ecumenical" version of the Patriarchal Church.

It is reiterated with these messages that the Russians would like to enlist even the pope of Rome in the great restoration of a traditionalist and intransigent Christianity, which in general befits very little to the personality of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, except in the desire to counter the political and cultural domination of the pro-American West, the real motivation for Russian aggression.

Increasingly, a variant of political and "popular" Christianity is being imposed from Russia, the scope of which goes far beyond the war with Ukraine and claims of reunification of historical variants of the Russian people.

The impact on international public opinion is such that the news of the rise of the new head of Al-Qaeda, the Egyptian Saif Al-Adel, the trainer of the terrorists who attacked the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, the symbol of religious radicalism for a twenty-year period, now replaced by the "Russian martyrs" blessed by the patriarch for the war in Ukraine, is almost insignificant.

In fact the very figure of Patriarch Kirill, and other hierarchs of Russian Orthodoxy, fades more and more in comparison with the propagandistic proclamations of the political and military leadership.

The properly ecclesiastical dimension appears increasingly secondary in the exaltation of Orthodoxy of the "Russian World," which points to the people and the empire more than liturgies and bishop's miters. It is a revival of the "tsarist triad" that proclaimed "orthodoxy, autocracy and popularism" as its fundamental principles, putting religiosity in last place as a decorative accessory.

Everywhere the slogan "We are Russians, God is with us!" (My russkye, c nami Bog!) is imprinted on flags, but also on T-shirts and digital memes, in which God is at the service of Russians, and not the other way around.

It is the slogan that was enforced since Generalissimo Suvorov's Swiss campaign in 1799, and which the very "triad" czar, Nicholas I, wanted to be Russia's cry in the Crimean War in the mid-nineteenth century, the military operation that most inspired the present war.

The Germanic empire born at that time, for that matter, also wanted to appropriate the slogan "Gott mit uns!", and in World War I Russians and Germans fought each other, both trusting in divine support, assuming we were talking about the same god.

A Russian poet from the time of Nicholas I, Petr Vjazemsky, then wrote a sarcastic poem titled "The Russian god": "Do you need an explanation / as to who the Russian god is? / he's a god of storms, god of chasms... god of the hungry, god of the frozen / the god of those who didn't make it / here he is, the Russian god," and concludes with "the god of wandering foreigners / who show up at our door / especially the god of the Germans / here he is, the Russian god."

The "Germans" (nemtsy) point to all foreigners, those who are "dumb" (nemye) because they do not have speech (slovo), the preserve only of the Slavs, in a set of puns meant to condemn the claim to be the only "true believers" in the universe.

In the new Putin constitution of 2020, there was a desire to officially introduce the name of God into the basic law, with the expression of "the memory of our fathers, who passed on to us ideals and faith in God," again reduced to an accessory, and outside the direct influence of the patriarchate, which had virtually no say in the rewriting of the text.

As Meduza's Signal column writes, "it was not the church that came to the Kremlin, but the Kremlin that came to the church." All surveys and statistics confirm that 70-80 percent of Russia's professing Orthodox citizens understand faith more as a symbolic dimension of state ideology than anything else.

Of this near totality of the ethnic Russian population, more than half have never set foot in a church, according to a 2022 Levada Center survey, only 27 percent believe in the resurrection and the afterlife, and more than 70 percent have no intention of observing fasts, a fundamental precept of traditional Orthodox devotion.

Patriarch Kirill himself has repeatedly confirmed that the Orthodox faith is first and foremost the "heritage of the fathers," at most the "spiritual foundation of our civilization, of the Russian world."

Such statements are being branded as heresy from many quarters, both by Orthodox theologians, Catholics and Protestants. It must be clarified which heresy is actually involved. In the 19th century, the Patriarchate of Constantinople had condemned "philetism," in short, the claim to national autonomy of the Church, attributed to the Greeks of Athens and the Bulgarians; later, ethnic autocephaly became the norm for the entire Orthodoxy, which today has 15 national Churches, and Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople himself wanted to force in 2018 the approval of the Tomos of autocephaly for Ukraine, arousing the wrath of Moscow.

The Moscow Patriarchate, after all, had first paved the way for national churches, establishing itself as the Third Rome in the late 16th century.

Still in recent days, German Catholic bishops Peter Kohlgraf (director of Pax Christi) and Franz-Josef Overbeck (bishop of Essen and military ordinary) commented on Patriarch Kirill's positions, calling them "cynical and depraved" from both religious and moral points of view, for extolling the martyrdom of Russian soldiers, "sent to the front as cannon fodder." The national-imperialist heresy is thus aggravated by the justification of war and human sacrifice, leading back to medieval views.

Perhaps we should question not only the deviations of Russian Orthodoxy, but the increasingly irrepressible spread of "political religion" at all latitudes. From radical Islam to neo-Ottoman Turkey, American theo-con and intransigent Pentecostalism, Hinduism and Buddhism in the service of politics, even the sacralization of Chinese communism: is this the religion of the 21st century?


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